We might only be a few months away from “Yo Mama” jokes constituting a content strategy. Brands are getting sassy with each other, and the Internet seems to be loving it.
Fresh and fun as they may seem, today’s viral brand fights are merely a new take on an old trick—the Pepsi Challenge for the social media generation.
“These types of tactics have been around for a long time,” said Gini Dietrich, CEO of Arment Dietrich and author of the book Spin Sucks. “The Energizer Bunny is a great example. The pink bunny actually started as a parody of Duracell, who had a similar mascot.”
What makes Taco Bell and Ford’s twists on comparative marketing is not the content itself, but the channels in which the battle takes place.
“Before, you’d see a commercial on TV, and you’d say to yourself, ‘That’s nice,'” said president of Social Media Explorer‘s SME digital, Nichole Kelly. “Now those messages are going further online, and there is a whole new conversation that we never had before.”
The question for any brand toying around with the idea of slinging some mud at a competitor is whether or not it’s worth the risk. Because while there’s plenty to gain from a well-aimed jab at a competitor, the response could always turn out to be an uppercut.
Comparative content is often meant to entertain, but the bottom line for brands is dead serious, said Ann Handley, chief content officer for MarketingProfs. “The brands are underscoring their truth and values,” she said, “and making it clear how they are different.”
In a world where brand loyalty is hard to earn, challenging consumers to choose sides can fast-track the process. “It’s really about capturing that conquest customer,” said Kelly. “You’re getting them to take a look at your product instead, and trying to steal away that business.”
Kicking off a fights with high-production-value video also gives brand the advantage of timing. On Twitter, brand banter relies on clever content created in real-time, such as Taco Bell and Old Spice’s chatter about fire sauce and volcanoes. It’s all good fun if everyone can keep up. A well-planned video, however, is difficult for a brand to respond to in a hurry, giving the instigator an upper hand.
“Brands are struggling to respond quickly enough,” said Kelly. “Take McDonald’s. If they haven’t done anything yet, it’s almost too late. Marketing teams need to be ready in real time, and not only on Twitter.”
If you believe that all press is good press, that applies to not only your brand, but also your competitor.
“It’s certainly legitimizing for the targeted brand,” Handley said. “Clearly, McDonald’s is number one in fast food breakfast. Taco Bell acknowledges as much by calling them out in their ‘breakfast wars’ play.”
That risk can be amplified if the content falls flat. A video that misses the mark while dissing a competitor can serve as a promotion for the other brand. Of course, that can still happen even if the content is wellexecuted.
“If Ford goes after a customer who wants a Cadillac, they have to live up to the expectations of the other carmaker,” Kelly said. “If it doesn’t have the amenities Cadillac has, it’ll end up hurting the brand.”
And then there’s the fact that not everyone likes a fight. Consumers can interpret even the most playful of banter as mean-spirited.
After being skewered by another brand, deciding whether or not to swing back can be a tough call.
“None of us certainly want to be attacked, but some of the best case studies come from the brands that are on the defensive,” said Dietrich. “When Honda started teasing food brands on Twitter about being vacuumed up in their cars, some of the brands attacked back, and it was all very funny and well done.”
When the negative tone goes beyond good fun, however, Handley suggests not dignifying it with a response. Unless, of course, it’s bad enough to help the brand tell a good story. Though it wasn’t brand-on-brand bickering, Honey Maid’s recent response to haters showed how negativity can be elegantly countered head-on.
“It’s a good model for responding to any kind of criticism when a core value is attacked,” Handley said.
When it comes to a viral brand fight, conventional measures of winning and losing don’t really factor in. What’s most important, said Kelly, is not which brand landed the best zinger, but if the right message made the right impact.
“They need to look at the sentiment around the conversation and track that back to a business objective,” she said. “Sure, it’s cool, it’s shiny, but ultimately they are going to start asking how does this drive traffic to a restaurant or get people to test drive cars.”
If that can be satisfactorily answered by both brands, it’s possible that everyone wins. In the case of Ford and Cadillac in particular, Kelly is pretty sure all the additional views of Cadillac’s original ad didn’t hurt the luxury carmaker’s feelings. All in all, she said, engaging in brand fights can not only be beneficial—they may even be a lot more amicable than they appear.
“Personally, I love that kind of stuff,” said Kelly. “‘I’ve always wondered why they don’t go head to head more often. The reality is, consumers are making decisions between the two brands. You can ignore that it’s happening, or recognize it and capitalize on it.”
But not everyone agrees.
“I don’t really see the long-term wisdom in it,” Handley said. “I’d rather focus on my own customers versus the competitor’s customers.”
We’ll let them argue that one out.